January 2009

Search Terms

This installment of You People Are Really Pretty Creepy brought to you by the following actual honest to god I made none of these up search terms used to reach this site in the past 4 days:

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darkfall forum


“You’re leaving here… for NCsoft? You *know* Tabula Rasa is going to crash and burn, right?”

— heard from someone when I announced my plans to leave Mythic, a year and a half before Tabula Rasa shipped

Adam Martin, formerly CTO of NCsoft Europe, has posted his own …post-mortem isn’t a good word, more of a memoir of his peripheral experiences with Tabula Rasa’s launch. It’s a good read – and you should go read it now. As his posting title puts it, “We need to talk about Tabula Rasa; when will we talk about Tabula Rasa?”

Well, Adam’s a bit safer in that he’s on a whole other continent. Here in Austin game development, it’s hard to find someone who isn’t, at a maximum, one degree removed from someone who was involved, at one point or another, with TR. It was a massive project, it employed a great many people over its lifetime, and at least half of the resumes currently sitting in my email are from people involved, at one point or another, with TR. Combine that with Midway’s long-running explosion and you have most of the Austin game development community polishing resumes.

So what happened?

My take is pretty similar to Adam’s, actually. I was considerably closer geographically, but not that much closer from a development perspective. To mirror Adam’s “who is this guy and why is he pontificating, again?” bona fides, I…

  1. …was a designer on another, smaller project at NCsoft Austin’s office (hired as system designer, eventually promoted to lead designer)
  2. …wasn’t on the TR dev team
  3. …am not much for FPS games, am pretty sad at them, and usually die horribly in Team Fortress 2
  4. …used that as an excuse for staying as far away from TR discussions as possible
  5. …it was a pretty weak excuse, yeah.
  6. …was on the same mailing lists Adam was (save the cool management ones he was privy to, which was probably for the best) and heard much the same angst, cheerleading, and general “holy crap what now” gestalt.

Gathering Feedback, Putting It Into A Box, Never Speaking Of It Again


As TR moved closer to release, company wide, we were *ordered* to start particpating in weekly playtests. As I mentioned, I wasn’t really fond of shooters, and clung to that Get Out Of Jail Free card fiercely. I mean, being one of the most obnoxiously opinionated persons on internal email lists, along with the whole ranting on the web for a decade thing, having an excuse *not* to have an opinion on That Thing Looming Over All Of Us was pretty sweet.

But closer to release, we were told to play the game and give feedback. Which I did. I think my overall feedback was “it wasn’t THAT bad” (for those at Mythic who remember the blistering we-should-probably-fire-your-ass-right-now-for-that-very-unhelpful-email feedback I fired off about Imperator prior to its final E3, that may raise an eyebrow or three). It *wasn’t* that bad. The tutorial was kind of meh, then got kind of cool, then you wandered around and shot things. It wasn’t World of Warcraft, which I considered a plus. I didn’t really enjoy playing it, but it wasn’t for me.

(I’m sure my somewhat constant resentment over Tabula Rasa being the twelve thousand pound gorilla which had dozens of programmers and a floor full of artists while our project was flailing about wildly for just one concept artist and maybe a server programmer or two had nothing to do with it. But I digress. For now, We’ll get back to that somewhat constant resentment in a bit.)

The calendar moved forward inexorably, and TR went into marketing beta – you know, where anyone can play it so they get ALL excited and make guilds and get ready for release and… yeah, that didn’t happen. People downloaded the game, had varying degrees of the “it’s not THAT bad” reaction, and didn’t play it again.

This was noted. One of the mantras that went around production discussions after Auto Assault’s launch square into the pavement was that if you can’t get people to play the beta for free, you have serious, serious issues. Tabula Rasa had those issues. Not as bad as Auto Assault – there were people doggedly playing every night and presumably enjoying themselves, and metrics were duly assembled to measure every movement those testers took. But it was pretty clear, at least from my completely disassociated and busy with my own thing viewpoint, that there wasn’t a lot of excitement.

So, as Adam mentioned, a survey was sent out shortly before the game was scheduled to release, anonymously asking, among other things, if the game should be delayed. I put that it should, based on the Auto Assault beta-not-lit-on-fire thing and the general principle that if you have to ask if it should be delayed, it probably should be. But I didn’t feel very passionately about it one way or the other. (I’m told later that most of the team DID feel pretty passionately about it and made it known so.)

The survey’s results weren’t announced. Internal rumors swept pretty widely (I know, because if they got to my end of the building, they were pretty wide) that the results were almost unanimously for a delay.

There was no delay.


You’re The Next Contestant On The Game Is Wrong

All during this time, I was pretty busy. Our game was trying to move into full production. We were the next product scheduled for shipment after Tabula Rasa. We were scrambling to fill some pretty key hires, justify an ambitious/insane production schedule, and generally get our shit into gear.

Right about then, the following things happened:

  • We were faced with some pretty key technical issues (I can’t go into any further detail, just assume for the moment they made us look like complete blithering idiots and go from there)
  • Tabula Rasa shipped, promptly flopped, and everyone went “uh… What the hell?”
  • Everyone in management decided that was *not* going to happen again, and most had their own theories on how that would be prevented.
  • The poster child for making sure it was *not* going to happen again became… us.

There was a company meeting about then, which was designed to boost the company morale. Chris Chung had just taken over from Robert Garriott, people were scared about their future, and we were tasked, as a key part of our presentation, to show how kickass we were.


We failed.

We had no game systems to show, because we had no functioning game server beyond a prototype that we had migrated away from months prior. We showed a depressing landscape of twisted trees and rocks, and our lead designer, who normally is one of the most inspirational speakers I’ve heard in the industry, understandably wilted under the stress of YOU MUST SAVE OUR COMPANY NOW and gave a pretty depressed speech about the game’s fiction that didn’t match much of what was shown onscreen. The internal response was brutal to the point of sadism, and in a failing of management was made known to the leads along with who gave the comments. Most of whom were… on Tabula Rasa.

This was not helpful to morale, to put it mildly.

Things got worse. An executive from Korea came to check on our progress, and was surprised that we were working on an MMO. (I wish I was joking.) We were told that our jobs weren’t in danger, really. It’s FINE. You’re good for at least a few months or so.

Meanwhile, Tabula Rasa chugged on.

We soldiered on, moved inexorably towards our first playable demo. It was a really kick-assed zone, our artists (which we finally had) outdid themselves, our programmers (which we finally had) did awesome work, I had taken over lead design duties due to the former lead being promoted onward and upward at his own request (his vision of the game long before eviscerated by budget cuts) and we were gonna kick ass, it was gonna be great, everything was finally firing on all cylinders, we were going to show everyone at the company that we could follow through on our promises and our ninjitsu was superior and and and the first team playtest we did on the new server failed completely.

The team meeting following that was unpleasant. I imagine the same “it was your fault no it was your fault no you” conversation took place at Tabula Rasa more than once.

Shortly thereafter the project was cancelled. Not one of the highlights of my career, especially since I was one of the folks who had to man up and tell our superiors that no, we were not going to be able to deliver a playable demo on schedule and yes, we knew what that meant. Our team shrunk by 2/3rds as we swiftly moved to working on a new prototype to justify our continued existence.

Meanwhile, Tabula Rasa chugged on.

There was another company meeting, which was designed to boost company morale. We were told that we were eminently replacable in general (which I’m told later was a wildly, wildly misconstrued statement, but to put it mildly, did not boost company morale) and that our team in specific was a “distraction” from NCsoft’s core business model. Everyone, including me, immediately began looking for work.

When we were finally let go a month later, it wasn’t a surprise, and most of us already had offer letters in hand elsewhere. (I was given the option to transfer to another NCsoft studio, but declined, as we had put down roots here in Austin.)  At this point, my personal perspective came to an end, since I, well, didn’t work there any more.

Meanwhile, Tabula Rasa chugged on.

What Would Snarky Bloggers Do?

So, I don’t have any magic solutions for what should have been done differently. My personal view on Tabula Rasa is that it was a project in search of reasons – the original design was “let’s make a game both Korea and the US will go for”, and when that failed, it became “let’s make a game both shooter fans and MMO fans will go for”. Not being a full shooter and not being a full MMO, it didn’t do well at attracting either. But that’s from the outside looking in – any armchair designer could figure that out.

To quote Adam:

When the organization disempowers you, and nothing you do seems able to make a diference, but – in your opinion – the impending event is an “extinction-level” disaster, is resignation the only valid response? Surely not?

Our response was to keep our heads down and do the best that we could at our jobs. From what I gathered from hallway conversations with others, that was a fairly universal take. It’s what you CAN do.


Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, for our project, and ultimately, for Tabula Rasa as well. There’s nothing that you can point to and say “here was the big mistake”. There were a lot of tiny mistakes, and they built up.

Would delaying Tabula Rasa’s open beta have saved it? Probably not.

Would delaying Tabula Rasa’s release have saved it? Probably not.

In the end, some games – most games, actually – just fail. Tabula Rasa was one of those. There wasn’t anything obvious or magical to it. It just wasn’t a game that very many people got passionate about. The biggest failing, though, was that it was in development about twice as long and spent twice as much as it had any right to. And that’s what promotes it, in this snarky outside blogger’s view, from understandable failure to extinction-level company-slaying train wreck. That took precedence over any design failure or engineering failure or art vision or whatever your personal opinion on why it failed might be.

It just. took. too. much. money.

Salvation of Gaming As We Know It Delayed To February

Darkfall, previously scheduled to free our minds, await the following of our asses on January 22, finally described the scheduling of the last, best hope of MMO gaming.

To break it down:

  • Releasing an MMO is hard and stuff but they have to get it right because this is going to save us all from those goddam carebear monstrosities and you know you’re gonna wait for it anyway so stfu
  • Hardest of hard hardcore hardness to be invited into a beta on January 22 and if you’re not playing Darkfall by then you are a loser and should pray for death
  • It’s going to take time to set up the billing system because god knows uncounted millions of people around the world and possibly elsewhere are going to be up for this on the first day, you know it
  • Beta was delayed a couple weeks, but only because the developers are so totally awesome that they knew they had to and if you weren’t such a freakin’ ladyboy you’d understand that
  • Launch may be staggered after the official date because the Internet itself may have to be reconfigured to route traffic properly to Darkfall servers. Pre-order and beta customers will get in first because everyone else is useless and should, as noted earlier, pray for swift death
  • Darkfall is only planned to launch in Europe at this time because Americans are worthless and weak and fat slobs who totally could never win against your main.
  • ” Hype surrounding Darkfall is huge right now, despite our best efforts.”

Let’s Run The Numbers

The top 20 PC games of 2008, by sales figures (MMOs highlighted):

1. World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Expansion Pack
2. Spore
3. World of Warcraft: Battle Chest
4. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures
5. Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning
6. Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
7. The Sims 2 Double Deluxe
8. World Of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Exp Pk Collector’s Ed
9. Fallout 3
10. World Of Warcraft: Burning Crusade Expansion Pack
11. Call Of Duty: World At War
12. The Sims 2 FreeTime Expansion Pack
13. World Of Warcraft
14. Sins Of A Solar Empire
15. Warcraft III Battle Chest
16. The Sims 2 Apartment Life Expansion Pack
17. Crysis
18. Left 4 Dead
19. Diablo Battle Chest
20. The Orange Box

I’m thinking World of Warcraft needs about 5 or 6 more SKUs.

This Just In: The Sky Is Not Falling

Welcome to January, the season to navelgaze. I’ve done my share:

The video game industry is not going to be immune from the Great Recession. The MMO industry is especially not going to be immune, as the only proven path to success for MMOs is in huge budget gambles that have missed more often than not.

But looking at the future is risky, since it hasn’t, you know, happened yet. So backyard pundits (you know, like backyard wrestling, but without the dignity) look back in angst-er at the year gone by. Here’s a typical sample.

If an apologist fan (or Bill Roper) of any of these games tries to blame the previous as to why these games never became a success then they clearly have a few screws loose. No, these games failed because their developers let it happen.

(You know, I can’t begin to describe the number of design meetings where people just keep saying “you know, we should just let this game fail. C’mon! It’ll be fun!”  In retrospect? We should have done that less.)


First, a tangent (well, another one, anyway): I love Hellgate: London. I love any game that has enough balls to put a colon in their name, but especially Hellgate: London, which never was really an MMO but pretended to be long enough to try to get a subscription fee that few actually paid. But why I love HG:L the most is the sheer amount of angry internet angst it generates.

Let’s not beat around the bush – HG:L was a bad game. The content was poorly written, the skill system was overcomplicated to the point of opacity, and as near as I could determine, the game consisted mostly of ruins, demons that jumped out at you, and the color brown. This would be why I did not buy it. I did not remain on message boards for six months or a year complaining about how Bill Roper personally raped my childhood or making oh-so-witty puns on the game’s name that people who still laugh at “Micro$oft” find clever. Why should I? It wasn’t a good game. There are other games which were good. I played those.

See – there *were* good games that came out last year. You may have heard of this “lich king” thing, for example. Sure, Blizzard could have run the Zone Creation Wizard 16 times, crapped out enough foozles to take you to the next Woozle Fairy Instance Run, and made 83 hojillion dollars. Yet, there were actually some zones in the expansion which are… really good. Sure, if you’re tired of killing orcs with a sword, it probably doesn’t do much for you – but for people complaining about how the world doesn’t change when you do anything, well, they’re working on it.

A few people, I’m given to understand, picked up the expansion. There were a few other expansions as well, if you like the whole kill orcs with a sword thing but still think Bill Roper raped your childhood back when he was doing voiceover work at Blizzard.

Want PvP? Well, there was this one game that came out last year and is still poking along, and there’s this other game that has this somewhat interested following coming out soon, and oh yeah, there’s this other game which has a new expansion and store presence coming up which is more than a little popular. I’m told you can even kill other players in that lich king thingamabob a few of those kids today are playing!

It’s easy to point at failures and laugh. I do it with great regularity, because I too enjoy easy things. And it’s true that new MMO development is going to slow this year.  It SHOULD. Huge megaprojects like Tabula Rasa that don’t have a clear goal and defined market will fail – and they SHOULD fail. Games like Age of Conan that release half-baked will fail – and they SHOULD fail. This is market evolution in action. If you’re going to compete in the marketplace, it’s a bit more mature than when you had twolettergames and nothing else.

But the market isn’t in tens of thousands, but tens of millions. There’s a bit of room to grow and prosper. Just not, you know, if Bill Roper raped your childhood.


Wikipedia is a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons: where multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.

I love Wikipedia. I use it constantly, like in the sentence above. For the big picture stuff, Wikipedia works. Take the article on Hamas for example – a nuanced treatment of currently one of the most explosive (literally) topics in the news today. In this, it benefits from high visibility, and a lot of people pushing and pulling at cross-currents to come up with the “conventional wisdom” on a given subject. It has about 10 or so edits a day, and editing with an axe to grind is treated as vandalism and pruned in short order. Wikipedia works precisely as advertised here – the wisdom of the many is outed in the struggle of the everyday. Beautiful phrase,  no? Pity it doesn’t work anywhere else.

Let’s take a look at two people: Raph Koster and myself. You know, I’m going to just go out on a limb here and say Raph’s had a bit more impact on virtual world development than I have. Yet poor Raph gets one breezy paragraph and a credits list, and I get a loving dissertation (which I didn’t write, by the way) on the various ebb and flows of my blogging history. (Which mind you, used to be even longer.) Richard Bartle freaking helped invent MUDs and his entry is mostly about how he pisses World of Warcraft players off. Good thing Rob Pardo has a good entry! Oh wait, no, he doesn’t, his entire biography is how he hates Paladins. NO, I AM NOT JOKING AT ALL. Thanks, Wikipedia, for focusing on what’s really important about the career of the lead designer of the most successful MMO in history. You rock. Especially since, apparently according to Wikipedia, I am the most important MMO developer of our time. I’m getting a plaque or something now.

As a result, we have a bit of a kerfluffle (described by Bartle and Koster) where an angry Wikipedian decided that a MUD he may or may not have used to play isn’t “notable“, meaning that it isn’t worthy of being included in the same category of knowledge as, say, ponyplay. To be fair, the article in question does read more like an ad than a descriptor. But the talk page (a page attached to each wiki entry where people can discuss the pros and cons of MUDding, ponyplay, or both) descends into Shakespearean madness and it’s pretty clear that some uninvolved rational adult needs to step in and thwap everyone on the nose. Of course, no such individual actually exists, so we get people with duelling ASCII signature tags arguing over encyclotrivia.

But maybe it’s just MMOs where Wikipedia falls down. Let’s look at two other people: Barack Obama and Lyndon LaRouche. Space aliens would, just judging from Wikipedia, judge LaRouche as equally notable as Obama. (Luckily, they’d probably also find it easier to communicate with him). This is a good example of where Wikipedia just craps all over itself – since Wikipedia is a hivemind, there’s no policing save that of interested parties – and the interested parties in LaRouche’s case happen to be, well, LaRouchies who think he’s the pre-eminent economist of our times or something. Again, there’s no controlling legal authority (thanks, Al Gore!) so the occasional random visitor dumbstruck by such statements as “LaRouche was credited by press in Italy and Argentina as the economist who successfully forecast the financial crisis of 2007–2008” (note: this may in fact be true, if you come from the Moon) are attacked themselves as having “conflicts of interest“.

Wikipedia is like the web writ manifest – a huge body of knowledge, with no guidance save that of its priesthood, who ensure that there is no editorial voice whatsoever. Which would work, if everyone on the planet agreed on important moral issues, and was sane, and didn’t have axes to grind, and knew what they were talking about. Failing that, it’s much like, well, reading a blog. You might get something of interest, or you might get the leavings of some random game developer ranting about arcane geeky political issues on his lunch break.

And hey, if you think I’m off the wall when it comes to Wikipedia, try Prokofy Neva’s opinion. Having Wikipedia vetted through Second Life? Well, at least then we’d be able to grief the LaRouchies, I suppose.